This book searches for the truth behind the Travels of Sir John Mandeville.
Giles Milton is the author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg, a delightful account of the man who fought to keep a spice island from the Dutch and, even though he lost the battle, inadvertently won New York for England. This book is constructed in the manner of minority channels' documentaries that promise exciting revelations just before every commercial break; they last an hour but the meat is packed into the last ten minutes. In the same way Nathaniel's Nutmeg kept promising what was revealed in the last chapter; however there was sufficient colour to keep one going.
Similarly this book is really very thin on the ground in terms of actual discoveries and revelations and is heavily padded with (charming, interesting and funny) descriptions of the author's travels through the middle east in order to verify the truth about Sir John. I felt at times that the book was the script for a TV documentary in which the presenter wanders round modern day cities describing "the scenes Sir John would have seen".
Milton works hard to verify details of Sir John's book. This is necessary because many authorities point to the wealth of extravagant detail (eg "men with no heads") to suggest that Sir John never travelled or even that he never existed (although someone must have written the book). So Milton takes great triumph in discovering details that seem to suggest Sir John is wrong (a missing orb in a bronze statue of Justinian on horseback) and yet prove him right (the orb was damaged and was being repaired when Sir John was in town).
Milton also tries to track Sir John down and suggests he was born in St Albans, he visited Scotland in 1312; was pardoned for his role (with his overlord, Humphrey de Bohun) in the murder of Piers Gaveston in 1313; had his father ransomed from Bannockburn in 1314 (Robert Bruce had an English estate not far from Black Notley near St Albans where Sir John lived and contributed to the ransom); that he was a clerk who worked on negotiations between Edward II and Robert Bruce in 1320; that he sold land in 1321; then was involved with the 1322 abortive rebellion of Humphrey de Bohun which was put down at Boroughbridge and fled abroad. Exactly how he knew he would have to sell land in 1321 so he had the readies with which to flee the following year is not made clear. He then returned to England in 1356, wrote his book and died shortly afterwards.
Which is rather less than the 280 pages Milton takes!!!
Page 163 particularly annoyed me: Milton quotes a paragraph in Latin "the significance of which even my schoolboy Latin could detect" and then FAILS TO GIVE A TRANSLATION. Why do authors do that??? It is so affected: I can do Latin and I expect anyone who is reasonably well educated to do the same.
A mildly interesting book but so much more could have been made of it. Milton says he took ten months to research it. Doesn't show.
August 2008, 280 pages.
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57